PITTSBURG -- When a Mt. Diablo school bus driver dropped off 5-year-old Isabelle Fardella at the wrong location more than a year ago, the girl got lost and couldn't find her way home.

"My daughter could have ended up on a milk carton," said the girl's mom, Lisa Della Rocca, who sued the district in small claims court Sept. 21, alleging school officials were negligent.

A woman walking down the street that day, Oct. 5, 2010, saw Isabelle and helped her get to her house. Although relieved, Della Rocca said she had been frantic when the day care center informed her that Isabelle had not arrived as usual.

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Nearly a year later, Isabelle began dreaming about the incident, crying that she would never get home. That's when Della Rocca decided to seek $7,500 in damages, claiming emotional distress to her family and post-traumatic stress to Isabelle, who is now 6.

A judge ruled Dec. 5 in Della Rocca's favor and ordered the district to pay $1,000 in damages, plus $85 in court fees, based on testimony from both sides during a Nov. 15 court hearing. District employees admitted to the judge that a substitute driver allowed Isabelle to get off the bus at the wrong stop, with no adult to meet her.

Yet the district has hired the Oakland law firm of Crosby and Rowell to fight the decision at a cost of $185 per hour. If the firm spends more than 5.9 hours on the case, the district's legal costs are likely to exceed the $1,085 judgment.

"It seems like the intent is just to harass us," said Della Rocca, who is an attorney. "Legally, it doesn't make sense."

If the judge finds the district is bringing the appeal to harass Della Rocca and her family, another $1,000 can be added to the judgment, she said.

A.J. Fardella, Isabelle's father and Della Rocca's husband, said the family wants the public to know about problems with district busing, which he attributes to poor management. The district's general counsel, Greg Rolen, oversees the transportation department, along with food services and maintenance.

Based on Rolen's recommendation, the district terminated an outside contract with Durham Transportation for special education busing in 2011-12. This has resulted in numerous complaints from special education parents including Fardella, who said his autistic son was left without a bus for a week at the beginning of the school year.

Another special education parent complained to the school board about similar problems in September. In October, the parent of a student being bused from the closed Glenbrook Middle School to El Dorado Middle School in Concord complained that her son was falling into the aisle because the district was forcing students to sit three to a seat, no matter their size.

Della Rocca said Isabelle's bus was late more than once last year, causing her to worry about a repeat of last year's frightening incident.

Rolen told the judge the district changed its policy and would no longer drop off a student without an adult to meet him or her.

"That falls under the category of subsequent repairs, and it's not admissible," Judge Lowell Richards said. "The question is whether you were negligent at the time."

Rolen, Superintendent Steven Lawrence and attorneys from Crosby and Rowell could not be reached for comment. Trustee Gary Eberhart said he was not comfortable discussing pending litigation.

As a general rule, Eberhart said Rolen and Lawrence could decide how to handle lawsuits involving insignificant monetary judgments without board approval.

As Della Rocca sees it, the district's continuing fight constitutes a misuse of public money.

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For additional details about the case, visit the On Assignment blog at www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment.